November 15, 2018

Paul Simon: Musical Genius and National Treasure

“One and one-half wandering Jews …” goes the opening line of “Hearts and Bones,” a standout among the songs of Paul Simon. He’s the full Jew, of course, and his ex-wife Carrie Fisher — daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds — is the half-Jew.

Free to wander wherever they choose
Are traveling together
In the Sangre de Cristo
The Blood of Christ Mountains
Of New Mexico.

That’s the only Paul Simon song I can think of in which he affirms his Jewish identity. Even so, he insists on reminding us that we live in a country with a deep Christian heritage. But the fact is that Simon belongs in the pantheon that includes such fellow Jewish musical luminaries as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Bob Dylan, all of whom have shaped, enriched and ornamented American culture. If Dylan’s songs deserved a Nobel Prize in literature, then the Paul Simon songbook surely deserves at least a Pulitzer.

With the publication of “Paul Simon: The Life” by Robert Hilburn (Simon & Schuster), the time is right for pondering Simon’s place in American popular culture. Hilburn describes Simon as “one of the all-time great American songwriters” whose songs have been performed and recorded by “a treasure chest of vocalists, from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles.

Hilburn himself deserves to be called a legacy critic. Having spent three decades as the Los Angeles Times’ pop music critic, he brings to his book a depth of knowledge and experience that few others can approach. Indeed, Simon has opened his life and work to his biographer in ways we can only glimpse in his music. “Songs are not memoirs,” Simon told Hilburn, who goes on to explain: “Despite melancholy and self-doubt at points in his personal life, he avoided despair or hostility in his songs.” But those moments of melancholy and self-doubt — including his famous on-again, off-again collaboration with Art Garfunkel and a series of troubled family and romantic relationships — are not overlooked in Hilburn’s biography.

Born in New Jersey in 1941 and raised in Queens, Simon asked his father, whose dance band played the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan every Thursday afternoon, to buy him his first guitar at the age of 13. Starting in the late 1950s, he was “toiling at the lower levels of the music business trying to write teen pop hits largely by copying what was on the radio.” His first recording with childhood friend Art Garfunkel — they styled themselves as “Tom and Jerry” — was an unabashed Everly Brothers knock-off titled “Hey Schoolgirl.” By 1963, Simon was ready to put down his guitar and sign up for Brooklyn Law School. “The Sounds of Silence” was the song that spared him from a career in law. The song impressed Tom Wilson, Bob Dylan’s producer at Columbia Records, and soon Simon and Garfunkel were presented with their first recording contract and a studio date to record their first album. 

For those of us who revere Simon’s songs and the way he performs them, Hilburn’s book only heightens and sharpens our appreciation of the music itself. Everything we think we know about Simon — his meticulous approach to composition and performance, his curiosity about the music of other cultures ranging from the Cajun bayou to the townships of South Africa, and his sometimes prickly relationships with his family and his fellow musicians — is reinforced by the fascinating stories Hilburn tells. For example, we discover that the haunting sound of “The Boxer” was achieved by recording the opening guitar licks in Nashville, Tenn., adding the bass and drums in a New York City studio, and recording the vocals in a cathedral near Columbia University.

“By then, Simon, Garfunkel and [producer Roy Halee] had spent nearly a hundred hours on the track, and they still weren’t through,” Hilburn writes. Says Simon: “We went back to Nashville to record this beautiful instrumental section that blended a high-C trumpet and a pedal steel guitar. It was a beautiful part that Artie wrote, maybe the piece of writing that Artie is most proud of.”

Hilburn uses “The Boxer” as an example of the crucial role Simon and his music have played in American history. Simon was invited to perform on the first broadcast of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and the song he sang was “The Boxer.” According to Hilburn, “It was a defining moment for Simon because it underscored what had long been one of his quintessential qualities as a songwriter. Like ‘The Boxer,’ so many of his songs moved past any inherent darkness to express consolation, optimism and even faith.”

Perhaps an even better example of the enduring impact and relevance of Simon’s music is the song titled “American Tune.” “I always think of that as my Nixon-sore-loser song,” Simon told Hilburn. “I was writing about what I felt was the end of sixties beliefs — that idealism.” Ironically, the ever-inventive tunesmith did not write the music, which is based on a chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. But the words are Simon’s alone, and they capture the weariness and fatalism of a moment in American politics when we were struggling with the betrayal of our democracy by our president.

I don’t know a soul who’s not been
battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been
shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we’ve lived so well so long.
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s
gone wrong.

Today, at the age of 76, Paul Simon is appearing on stages around the country on what he calls “The Farewell Tour.” “American Tune” was released in 1973 on the album titled “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” but it could have been written yesterday.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.